What are idioms?
An idiom is a phrase or expression that we use to describe something that when looked at objectively, the words don’t actually make sense, for example ‘a storm in a teacup.’ If you take away the situation we use it for, it’s pretty meaningless and impossible. Idioms normally developed much further back in our languages depending on the culture and landscape of the time. Most of the time nowadays we don’t actually know why we say something, we just do because we grew up using the phrase and we know exactly what it means and when to use it.
Why learn them?
Idioms are something quite specific, so it’s easy to think ‘why do I need to learn this when I can just explain what I mean?’ Which although yes you can do this, using idioms helps you to express an idea much more quickly and effectively. It also gives you an insight into the culture and history of the language you’re learning, as they’re normally linked. On top of that, if you manage to use an idiom with a native they’re definitely going to be impressed and it’s going to push your language learning to a new level.
16 French idioms
I’ve chosen 16 French idioms that I like and I’m pretty sure you will too. Luckily many of these idioms have an equivalent in English, so if they sound strange you should still be able to wrap your head around them. Here they are!
Faire la grasse matinée
Literal translation: To have a fat morning
Meaning: This is definitely my favourite French idiom, and rather than having anything to do with food, it actually means to have a lie in. There were many times when I first moved to Paris that I would overhear this phrase in a restaurant during brunch on a Sunday and it took me months to build up the courage to ask someone what on earth it meant.
Arriver comme un cheveu sur la soupe
Literal translation: To arrive like a hair in the soup
Meaning: What it actually means is to arrive at a completely bad or unexpected time. Pretty much how you would feel if your soup arrived with a hair in it.
Appeler un chat un chat
Literal translation: To call a cat a cat
Meaning: This is very similar to the English expression let’s call a spade a spade, meaning to say what something is and speak directly rather than beating around the bush.
Coûter les yeux de la tête
Literal translation: To cost the eyes of the head
Meaning: Again, in English we have an idiom which is very similar and that is ‘to cost an arm and a leg,’ which of course means something is very expensive.
Boire comme un trou
Literal translation: Drink like a fish
Meaning: Drink like a fish! We have a match! We use this when someone drinks copious amounts of alcohol. It’s normally a negative expression though it can also have humorous connotations.
Avoir le cafard
Literal translation: To have the cockroach
Meaning: We use this when we want to say we are feeling down. An expression to portray this same feeling in English would be to be down in the dumps.
Literal translation: That runs
Meaning: This is way to say ok or that works. so if someone says can we meet tomorrow after work you can say ça marche, like yes that works.
Ça va, ça vient
Literal translation: They come and they go
Meaning: Or very similar to the English version easy come, easy go. It comes with effort and it goes without regret.
Coup de foudre
Literal translation: Thunderbolt
Meaning: Although the literal translation is thunderbolt, we use this to describe love at first sight. As many have romantically put it, this it how love at first sight feels.
Couper les cheveux en quatre
Literal translation: To cut the hair in four
Meaning: It would be the equivalent of to split hairs. We use this to refer to when someone is making small and usually unnecessary distinctions.
Je dis ça, je dis rien
Literal translation: I say that, I say nothing
Meaning: This is the French equivalent of the English equivalent ‘just saying.’ We normally use this when we’ve said something maybe a little bit harsh and we want to lessen the blow of defend our position.
Qui va à la chasse, perd sa place
Literal translation: Move your feet lose your seat
Meaning: Move your feet lost your seat. If someone gets up to go to the bar or the toilet and they return to find someone in their seat then tough luck, move your feet, lose your seat.
Il fait un temps de chien
Literal translation: It’s weather of the dogs
Meaning: It might sound strange, but it’s not really that different to it’s raining cats and dogs. We use this phrase to refer to when the weather is really terrible.
Loin des yeux, loin du cœur
Literal translation: Far from the eyes, far from the heart
Meaning: This would be most similar to the English expression, out of sight, out of mind. For me, this expression is a bit sad but it’s also useful and it does make sense. The longer someone is not present or visible, the more distant or irrelevant they become.
Les absents ont toujours tort
Literal translation: The absent are always wrong
Meaning: I’d say this phrase is most similar to ‘history is written by the winners.’ It doesn’t really matter if you’r technically in the right, if you’re not there to defend yourself in a situation, you’re the one who will most likely receive the blame.
Être à l’ouest
Literal translation: To be in the west
Meaning: This is a way of saying to be out of it or to be not with it. It’s not really an idiom but more of an expression.
A good way to learn idioms is to find someone who speaks that language and offer to teach them your idioms if they teach you theirs. Once you’ve learnt a few you can try slipping them into conversation. At first this is difficult but the more you do it, the more natural it becomes, just like all things when you’re learning a language.
You can also use Duolingo to learn idioms, as they have a module specifically for this. The only downside is that you have to use your hard earned lingots to buy the module. But that shouldn’t be too much of a problem because what else are you going to spend your lingots on.
Good luck and keep learning